Rose always admired the ogre’s house with its symmetrical shutters and tidy porch, swept clean even in the autumn when dry, curling leaves scuttled in the wind. Some neighbors’ porches were full of bric-a-brac, odds and ends that found no place within the house: an old, threadbare chair, a snow shovel despite a spring thaw. But the ogre’s house was immaculate, everything just so. Often, Rose stood in her dining room window staring across the street at the ogre’s house, sipping her morning coffee or clipping a final hair-roller in place before bed. Its white pillars and low railing bolstered her dreams, and Rose would sometimes wake up, her pillowcases soaked in sweat, her body aching for the serenity of that porch.
Rose was unsurprised when the sheriff knocked on the door. She had been watching one of the saccharine morning shows and filing her nails, cursing the new girl at the salon who hadn’t bothered to trim her cuticles despite repeated reminders. She shifted the sun-faded lace curtain that filtered morning light through the window and recognized the brownish green of the sheriff’s uniform. Rose blew an errant bang out of her eyes as she unlocked the dead bolt and straightened herself, her lips stretching in a tight smile.
“Good morning, Sheriff. What brings you here?”
“Nothing good, ma’am, I’m afraid to say.” He swiped the oversized hat from his shaggy, greying hair and cleared his throat. “Missing boy. Second one in the last month.”
“That’s awful,” Rose tutted. She could hear the shrill voice of the morning show host interviewing a young girl, a child prodigy on the violin. “What is this world coming to?”
“I don’t know, ma’am,” he replied sullenly. “We’re organizing a search party and going around asking for volunteers.” He shifted the stiff felt hat in his hands awkwardly, waiting for her response. A crow rattled in a nearby tree, its throaty clicks lingering somewhere in the suburban neighborhood. After a moment, the sheriff continued. “You’re so active in the ladies’ auxiliary, I thought you might help us out. Do y’all still have that phone tree?”
“Oh, of course, Sheriff,” Rose agreed automatically. She leaned her head against the door, her ear tilted toward the television. The little girl was playing the violin, a scratchy tune with rapid notes as though she had studied with the devil. Rose was watching the sheriff fiddle with his hat brim and imagined the little girl’s plump fingers curling around the neck of the violin, choking it till it screeched to a halt with a flourish of her bow.
“Thank you, ma’am. I’m trying to get around to some more folks in the neighborhood this morning, so I’ll be going. Can you ask everyone to meet in the field behind the school at nine?”
“I’ll assemble the masses, Sheriff,” Rose promised, reaching out her hand for the Sheriff, a gesture that seemed to startle him. He fumbled with his hat and extended his hand, an awkward smile creeping along his face.
“See you then, ma’am.” As the sheriff turned, lowering his arm, Rose felt a tug at her hand. Her fingernail, still jagged, had snagged the sheriff’s sleeve, pulling a brown thread loose on his uniform.
“Oh dear. The new girl at the salon needs to learn a thing or two about manicures,” Rose exclaimed, clutching her fingers, staunching a bit of blood that had welled around her cuticle.
“Not a problem at all, ma’am. Just a snag.” He tipped his hat to Rose and stepped down off the porch into the morning sunshine.
Rose closed the door and listened to the last whining notes of the violinist on the tv. She bit the jagged edge off of her finger nail, flicking it onto the floor. Let’s get this over with, she thought.
As the team of volunteers began to comb the pasture, sweeping through the knee-high grasses, the sheriff reiterated the instructions. “Anything out of the ordinary: footprints, bits of fabric. Hell, if you find a soda can, stop your sweep and mark it. We’ll work from here to the edge of the woods and back again before we start up the trail.”
Rose took quick, deliberative steps, trying to barely break the blades of grass beneath her feet. The ogre lumbered nearby, her thick legs tilling the pasture slowly.
“Sheriff, have you met,” Rose gestured toward the ogre, a pert smile furrowing her face. The sheriff blanched for a moment, looking from Rose to the ogre and then, as if remembering it was an election year, cleared his throat and reached out his hand.
“Of course. Happy to have you aboard. We could use you in this search,” he explained, warmth returning to his voice.
“How so?” asked the ogre, her hand overwhelming the sheriff’s. He pulled his arm back, stuffing his hand in his pants pocket.
“Oh, well, because,” the sheriff rocked on his heels and looked to Rose once more, as if confused, then embarrassed, an explanation heavy in his mouth. “Because you’re part of the team, right?” His eyes darted back and forth between Rose and the ogre and his foot caught on a root in the field. “We need more folks to take an interest,” he said, regaining his composure. “In being neighborly. Never hurts to be neighborly, right, Rose? How many times have you brought over a fresh loaf of banana bread or tomatoes from your garden to the wife? Best neighbor you’ll ever find, right here, ma’am.” He squeezed Rose’s arm and excused himself, returning to his deputy further along in the field. The ogre continued her sweep a few paces away, and Rose could not help but think of the ogre’s clean porch once more.
When the volunteer team had made multiple passes through the field finding little but the occasional empty beer can and stray plastic bag, the sheriff announced they would break for food and then continue their search in the woods nearby. “We still have several hours of daylight. Need to make the most of them, but there’s no sense in folks passing out from starvation in the woods. Sandwiches and soda are set up over by the trucks. First come, first serve. We don’t have a port-a-potty, but Lou said folks could use the bathroom in the farmhouse. Just knock so Judith knows you’re about so you don’t frighten her while she’s working in the kitchen. It’s always canning season in that household and the woman is up to her armpits in pears and pectin.”
Rose took a ham and cheese sandwich, avoiding anything with mayonnaise. She listened as the ogre asked for peanut butter and jelly. As the team resumed their search in the woods, Rose found herself next to the ogre once more.
“You must be fond of hiking,” Rose said, watching her step as she continued up the trail.
“Why must I?” the ogre asked, her thick-soled boots biting into the dry earth.
“Because,” Rose hesitated, trying to find a delicate phrasing. “Because of your heritage,” she finally answered.
“And what is your,” the ogre sniffed the air, “heritage?”
“Oh. I’m French,” Rose declared. “On my dad’s side.”
“And must you like escargot and the CanCan?” the ogre asked, an eyebrow raised precipitously.
“I suppose not,” Rose acquiesced reluctantly and concentrated on the familiar path ahead. The trail above the high school ran the length of the campus and the nearby park, switchbacking up the hillside to a radio tower at its peak. Though used by avid hikers and mountain bikers, the trail system was usually quiet.
Rose lingered behind the ogre, slowly climbing the single-track trail through the pine wood, distant conversations from other volunteers melting in the afternoon heat. From her position below, she glimpsed the ogre’s hands, slack at her sides. She hadn’t considered how much larger they were than her own, how thick the fingers were, how wide the palm. Annoyance prickled the hairs on her arm as sweat gathered along the underwire of her bra. She took a deep breath, remembering the relief she had felt at the beauty salon the day before. The new girl had been slow and poorly trained, but Rose had sighed with satisfaction when she dipped her calloused fingers into the cuticle soak, the isopropyl alcohol overwhelming her senses. She had ignored the girl’s prattle as she watched the dead skin cells flake from her, dissolving in the solution, a smile blossoming across her face. Rose tried to remember that feeling of relief as she walked behind the ogre, monitoring her steps along the path. She resisted the urge to bury her fingers in the forest floor, sap and earth lodging beneath her nails, filling the whorls of her fingerprints with soil. She cleared her throat as they neared the body, the ogre oblivious to its decay beneath the underbrush.
“Shouldn’t we check beyond the trail itself? Seems unlikely he’d be out in plain sight if something tragic happened to him,” Rose said, trying to sound nonchalant.
The ogre paused and looked back at Rose, seemingly struck by her logic. She nodded slowly and began to search the undergrowth. A low groan, like a bull’s bellow, emanated from her as she revealed a blue sneaker beneath a lush green fern.
“Here,” the ogre said, nearly in a whisper, as if not wanting to wake the boy under the blanket of browning ferns, his body unnaturally still.
“The poor thing. Strangled. The life wrung out of him like a wet sponge,” Rose said mechanically.
“How did you know that?” the ogre asked, suddenly looking up at Rose. She pulled back a branch, revealing the swollen neck contorted at a perverse angle. “How did you know the child was strangled?”
“What are you talking about? We knew the child was dead,” Rose insisted. She felt her stomach begin to knot, her tongue desiccating in her mouth in fear.
“No,” the ogre grunted. “We knew he was missing. Possibly dead – but we didn’t know the child might have died.” The ogre stood back up and took a step closer to Rose. “But you knew he had been strangled. How did you know that?” She asked again, glowering.
The ogre’s eyes bore into Rose and she shuddered. “I didn’t know anything. You’re the one who found the body,” Rose accused, crossing her arms over her chest. “Sheriff!” she cried out, searching the thick forest understory for the olive green uniform of the authorities. “Over here!”
“What’d’ya find, ladies?” The sheriff called out as he hurried along the uneven trail.
“She seemed to know right where the boy was, Sheriff. Drawn to him. Didn’t you say you could smell him?” Rose feigned disgust and slipped back a few steps down the trail.
The ogre didn’t reply. She stood glaring at Rose, her eyes not daring to look down at the muddy, untied shoe at her feet.
“I wanted us to look this other way, but she just seemed bent on going this way while my back was turned. Strange how her instincts work, isn’t it, Sheriff?” Rose insisted. She sidled behind him, using his body as a shield, as if cowering from the ogre.
“Yes, very strange indeed. You say you’ve never been in these woods before?”
The ogre nodded. A spider began crawling along her arm, but the ogre did not seem to notice, her skin rigid, her jaw clenched. “Her,” the ogre spat, still staring at Rose. The spider parachuted its way from the ogre’s shoulder to a nearby tree trunk.
“Miss Rose? What about her?” the sheriff asked, turning to look at Rose as if she had suddenly taken ill. But Rose was still there, her face stony and placid, her hand resting quietly on the pendant at her throat.
“She’s responsible,” the ogre said and stepped closer toward Rose, her index finger punctuating the air.
“Responsible for what?” the sheriff asked. “What’s all this about? You ladies have to excuse me. The forensics team will need to move in and begin processing this area. You’ll need to step away now,” he instructed, directing Rose and the ogre back down the trail.
“Sheriff, you don’t understand,” the ogre began, her teeth grating.
“She said she could smell him,” Rose said, her voice low and conspiratorial.
“What’s that, ma’am? Smell him?”
Rose sat on her porch, a windchime clinking lightly in the autumn breeze. She read her newspaper, letting the sections slip to the concrete floor as she sipped her blonde coffee. The mailman started up the walkway and smiled at her.
“Nice day, isn’t it, ma’am?” He sorted through the mail in his hand, clicking his tongue as he fingered through envelopes. “Oh. This one isn’t for you. It’s for, er,” he stammered a moment, red lines spidering up his neck. “This is addressed to the, um, former resident. I’ll take it back to the post office,” he said, stuffing the letter back in his satchel. “Shame about her. Never can tell about some folks, huh? She seemed like such a nice person.”
“Terrible,” Rose agreed, shaking her head and taking the envelopes from him. She threw them on the little table without looking at them and returned to her newspaper. A spider scuttled along the porch railing and positioned itself in the corner of its web.
The mailman shivered in the crisp air and continued across the yard. He squinted the sun out of his eyes and looked up at the house. “Oh, ma’am. Shutter’s lost a strut. Starting to sag.” He pointed at the window, but Rose did not reply. Shrugging, he waved and continued along his route.
Rose wondered where the ogre’s mail would be sent – if she would receive it in jail or if it would be returned to its original sender, unread, unopened. She pushed the envelopes off the table, letting them scatter at her feet. The peal of a toddler laughing as it jumped into a pile of leaves rang across the neighborhood and Rose grimaced at the intrusion of her quiet morning routine.
Shelly Jones, PhD (she/her/hers) is a Professor of English at SUNY Delhi, where she teaches classes in mythology, folklore, and writing. Her speculative work has previously appeared in Podcastle, New Myths, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @shellyjansen.